The Road to the Merger Part 3: TV Saves the AFL

“Getting Werblin was the turning point.” - Lamar Hunt

Television and sport were on the verge of creating a symbiotic relationship by the 1960s. In Lamar Hunt's original sketched notes made on American Airlines stationary back when he considered forming a new football league, he recognized the importance of all of the league's teams sharing in what could be gained from a national television contract. Harry Wismer, the colorful owner of the New York Titans, had been an early proponent of such a split among teams.

Situated in America's largest city, Wismer's franchise was failing. Could any professional sport in the country exist without a New York City outlet? With its fall would come another loss in whatever prestige the AFL still had left and possibly lead to the league's collapse. His and the league's salvation, however, was closer at hand than what any of the other owners may have thought.

Salvation came in the person of Sonny Werblin. Werblin was a fixture in the world of television entertainment and a canny negotiator for many of the broadcast world's most successful talent. With Wismer's attempts to hold onto his Titans failing, the league eventually took over the team and Werblin purchased it, changing its name to the Jets.

No less than Hunt acknowledged what this meant. "Getting Werblin was the [AFL's] turning point," he said for years afterwards when asked what helped to bring about the AFL-NFL merger.

But that did not become clear until 1964.

The AFL's original television deal was with ABC-TV - a series of five one-year deals that was renewable each year. Each team realized about $100,000 per team. CBS-TV had paid NFL teams $4.62 million, or $950,000 per club.

But ABC opted out of the final year of the contract, and this is where Werblin's influence mattered most. NBC-TV had lost in the bidding war to CBS for the NFL rights. Carl Lindemann, VP of NBC Sports, still smarting from the loss of his NFL bid, immediately took a call from Werblin, now owner of the Jets.

Timing was everything, and contacts didn't hurt either, which Werblin had in spades. He was tight with NBC president Bob Kintner, who happened to love sports, and Werblin knew it.

In a limousine, Werblin sketched out some numbers on an envelope using the CBS numbers as a guide and showed them to Lindemann, who he had commandeered to ride with to his office. Shockingly, Lindemann didn't change them. They came out to $42 million over five years.

"It put our teams almost on par with the NFL teams," Hunt believed. "It was the single most dramatic development in making the AFL competitive." He recognized that his fellow owners needed the money to hold onto any hope of survival.

"It was smart business for NBC to have a strong AFL," Hunt insisted, "and Werblin was the guy who made them realize that." Lindemann agreed, noting that "we knew the men operating the AFL, like Lamar Hunt, were men of financial means."

Almost immediately, the NFL understood what the new contract meant, too. Any hope of the AFL's demise was gone for the meantime.

"They don't have to call us Mr. anymore," Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney was reported to have said when news of the new AFL TV contract reached him.

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